Welcome to The Old Print Works. If you have lived around Balsall Heath for a long time, you may have known it as JH Butcher Ltd, manufacturing since the 1890s. “Tell the world who made it with Butcher’s Transfers” the globe over the gatepost used to suggest to passers-by. Butchers Printed Products (as it later became) moved out of the building to Redditch in 2009, leaving a huge vacant building in need of some love. The Old Prints Works is an increasingly important cultural, economic and social centre in Balsall Heath. But how did we get to this position?
The founder of The Old Print Works, Ian Greenwood, had for a long time harboured thoughts of creating a place for hand skills, community, making, skillshare, live-work, super-insulation, business start-ups and intergenerational learning, and saw an opportunity. After a quick scan of funding available and the receptivity of the high-street banks to financing such a project, he took the plunge and signed a lease on the building with a view to buying the building shortly after. Make It Sustainable Ltd, now approaching its 8th anniversary, was set up as a company and later a charity and took over the running of the building.
People started to catch Ian’s vision and to move into The Old Print Works – people who understood the need for making, art and community. Ort Café and the pottery were more visible examples, but there was a solid group of less visible makers working in studios hidden away, and fabulous characters such as the late, great Stan Newton. The historical significance of the building is recognised with its Grade II listing, alongside beautiful civic buildings on the Moseley Road, and one person coined what was starting to happen at The Old Print Works as ‘the missing Heart of Balsall Heath.’
As austerity became the order of the day with the new Conservative coalition government, funding became scarcer and a more cautious outlook on investment prevailed. More people moved in and sometimes out of The Old Print Works, but funding or finance to purchase the building remained out of reach. This made it harder also to secure funding for improvements to the building, which in turn drastically slowed the journey towards a sustainable economic model.
Despite the very slow upward curve, in 2016, when Ian said he could not financially support The Old Print Works beyond the next break clause in the lease, a difficult decision had to be made. We almost had to close, but the enthusiasm of the tenants, a small but significant reduction in the rent from the owners, some personal short-term loans and the downright doggedness of the trustee volunteers kept it going, and have continued to strengthen the finances since.
Now, there are over 50 people regularly working in the building and many more using the facilities every week. We are grateful that these people have seen beyond the shabby toilets, the occasional leak and the not-always-optimal temperatures. We see the synergies that happen when people work alongside like-minded others.
If you haven’t yet been to The Old Print Works, alongside the studios to let there are growing reasons to come, amongst them an excellent bike mechanic, the pottery, children’s wood- and metal-work,community textiles, traditional darkroom and photography, super-affordable co-working, yoga, a youth arts space and The Mix community cafe opening shortly.
Many people harbour thoughts about Balsall Heath that are out-of-date. Balsall Heath, like any person or place should be, is still learning and growing. Embracing its mottled history, its diverse ethnic mix and high indices of deprivation, it is shaking things up and telling a new story of solidarity, creativity and perseverance against the odds. Often overlooked by wider Birmingham, as ever, Balsall Heath is turning heads nationally. It’s a few years since the Prime Minister popped in, but the likes of The National Trust and Historic England are seriously interested in how Balsall Heath rolls, and how we do heritage.
A Business Angel told us a few years ago that our business didn’t stack up, and we should cut our losses. But there exist people (in Make It Sustainable and in the enterprises contained within The Old Print Works) who are willing to give themselves to community benefit at considerable personal cost – people like Gabriel Wer, Becky Belcherand Richard Newtoncome to mind, along with MIS volunteers and trustees. They don’t take the bank’s eye view of the balance sheet. They just stick their necks out and do what they believe in. Maybe the Heart of Balsall Heath is not a place, but a state of mind. Long may it live on. We, in The Old Print Works, intend to be an integral part of it.